Students at Thurmont Middle School won’t be able to wear their backpacks in the hallways between classes anymore.
For the first time, they’ll have to carry their binders and other supplies from class to class and keep backpacks stored in lockers during the school day, according to a new policy.
Other Frederick County middle schools have long had rules that require backpacks to be stored in lockers, including Gov. Thomas Johnson and Crestwood middle schools. Other schools, such as Ballenger Creek Middle School, have established procedures limiting backpacks to small string bags.
A few factors might be at the root of procedures at Thurmont and other schools: This is the first year across all middle schools that Chromebooks will be available at a one Chromebook to every student ratio. Enrollment continues to increase, as six of the 10 middle schools in the county are at or near full capacity, possibly causing crowded hallways. But some parents speculate the series of false alarms or unfounded threats at Thurmont Middle School led to the new no-backpack rule.
“There is no specific information coming out about why they are changing it,” said Jody O’Donnell Stinson, a parent of a Thurmont Middle student. “They can investigate those threats all they want, but still you don’t know. The backpack change has to do with that, with the change in society and that there have been a lot of incidents in school. Backpacks can hide dangerous things being brought into school.”
Denise Williamson-Etzler, treasurer of the PTA at Thurmont Middle, said she believes Frederick County Public Schools is joining districts across the nation that are changing their backpack policies in response to recent school shootings.
“Sadly, schools across America are updating their backpack policy due to recent events (think Parkland HS),” she wrote on social media. “I know this change will stir debate but let’s remember...our children’s safety is always first. In my opinion (and I do NOT speak on behalf of the PTA Board nor the school), their minor inconvenience should be second.”
Schools in Florida, Ohio and Illinois began banning backpacks in February after a gunman entered Parkland High School and killed 17 people, the Miami Herald reported, aiming to make students safer from gun violence at school.
Wendy Blum, parent of a Thurmont Middle student, agreed that safety should be the top priority, but she had some concerns regarding the new rule.
“I agree with the cellphone policy, but I can’t wrap my mind [around] the backpack thing,” she said. “If they are coming to school and want to do harm, they are coming in with their backpack in the school regardless. If they say no backpacks in the school at all, OK. I’m on board.”
In his announcement of the change, Thurmont Middle Principal Daniel Enck cited Chromebook cases as a good substitute for carrying items that students need during class.
“As we transitioned to this school year, it became evident that the Chromebook cases provided students with a place to keep pens, pencils, and other small school supplies,” Enck said in June. “Students will still be required to carry binders, folders, etc., but the expectation will be that all bags (backpacks and string bags) will remain locked in their lockers with their cellphones. Students have three minutes to transition between classes, which includes time to stop at their locker to switch out school supplies/materials.”
There have been no district-wide policies regarding backpacks in Frederick County, but Tom Saunders, director of middle schools at FCPS, and Michael Doerrer, spokesman for the school district, both said the decision at Thurmont wasn’t connected to worries about weapons being brought to school.
“The more kids you have in the hallway, and students stopping at their locker with that backpack, the more it could cause the flow of the hallway to be less efficient,” Saunders said in an interview. “A lot of it comes down to the individual school’s facilities. Some schools are large, some are small. Monocacy is going to have over 1,000 students, so you have the range of student populations and the impact of those students being out in the hallway as a factor.”
Monocacy Middle is one of the schools also considering changing backpack procedures. But parents of Thurmont Middle students say that, unlike Monocacy, there’s no need to change backpack policies if the sole reason is crowded hallways.
“There is no problem with crowding at Thurmont Middle,” O’Donnell Stinson said. “All the kids are able to have lockers. It’s not like Catoctin High, where it’s so crowded my daughter didn’t use a locker because it was too crowded to even get it open. There is plenty of room and time at Thurmont.”